Tuesday, September 05, 2006

2006 Senate Elections Report: Seats Likely to Stay Put

In my Friday column, I talked about the essence of handicapping the 2006 Senate races and the resulting balance of power in the 110th Congress starting in January. When you combine the seats that do not expire this year with the Senators who do face reelections but for which an almost-biblical event would be required for them to lose -- this year's solid "locks" for their parties -- we end up with a starting point of 47 Republicans and 39 Democrats staying put in the next Senate.

That's the landscape we have before we consider the other 14 races. These are the contests that are much more iffy and that will determine which political party gets to the majority number of 51 and which spends the next two years with little legislative power.

I had originally planned this to be a two-part series, concluding today. But as I go over all of the relevant factors in each of these races, it becomes obvious to me that I can serve readers better by extending it to three parts, concluding on Thursday. It's a lot to read, and the piece today would have been enormous, had I included all 14 remaining races.

In part two today, we're going to look at five of the fourteen remaining contests -- the races that are hardly in the bag, but that lean in one direction or the other. While it's possible for the other side to win these seats, there's slightly more than two months until election day and a lot of ground would have to be made up very quickly.

Leaning to Democrats

Debbie Stabenow (D-MI): Stabenow is Secretary of the Senate Democratic caucus, making her the third-ranking Democrat and many within the party had hoped that we would arrive at this point with her race as a sure-bet. It's not, but it's pretty damn close.

Michigan has had some tough times since George W. Bush became president and the question has been whether voters will count Team Bush as the cause of their woes or Stabenow, who was elected to her first term in 2000. But it's a bad year to be a Republican and, no matter how much the GOP may hope that voters blame Michigan's stale economy and job losses on their junior Senator, it's not likely to happen in big numbers.

And it sure isn’t likely to stick with Stabenow having eight to ten times as much cash as Republican nominee Michael Brouchard, which makes it much easier to neutralize the predicable tsunami of attack ads that will probably start today.

More than that -- and even with Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm in serious trouble this year -- Stabenow has been handily in front in every one of 20 or so independent polls done in 2006, with a September 3, Free Press-Local 4 poll showing her with 50 percent to Bouchard's 37 percent.

To seal the deal, Stabenow's campaign needs to tout how she has ferociously fought for greater funding for emergency first-responders and other domestic security measures throughout the 109th Congress, explain how those measures were killed by the Republican majority and ask voters to imagine what good deeds she could accomplish with her clout and with a Democratic majority in the Senate.

Maria Cantwell (D-WA): This one just became much easier with recent revelations that Republican nominee Mike McGavick may have lied about a 1993 DUI arrest -- something that's resonating across the country and in the Pacific Northwest. While Cantwell's approval rating in Washington hovers consistently around only 50 percent, she has a lot of campaign cash and, if McGavick continues to self destruct, she may not have to use much of it to win easily.

Pollster.com's average of the last five major polls has her at 51-40 over McGavick and the average of the 10 most recent polls shows Cantwell with an aggregate 49 percent to 40 percent for McGavick. If you're McGavick, that's not where you want to be as an under-funded challenger for a U.S. Senate seat, with problems of your own, with only two months to go.

Ned Lamont(D-CT):
What in the world can any of us say about this race that either hasn't already been said or that, given the political chaos that Joe Lieberman has selfishly introduced for the general election, would amount to anything other than reading tea leaves? I stand a better chance of beating Tiger Woods at 18 holes than Republican nominee Alan Schlesinger does of winning this election, so we can rest assured that the spot is not formally going into Republican hands. I say "formally" because, at this point, Joe has become politically schizophrenic and there's simply no telling what he'll do if he manages to win.

But Lieberman has to go back and face his Democratic colleagues in the Senate today, is having one hell of a time building an organization in Connecticut and I simply do not believe his Independent candidacy will still exist one month from now. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but no matter how stubborn Joe may be, he's hurting Democratic House candidates in Connecticut and he'll be hearing about that from his colleagues, in addition to many other voices telling him to step away with dignity, over the next couple of weeks.

And, no matter what the polls right after the
August 8 primary said about Lieberman prevailing in a three-way race, the last couple of published polls show Lamont and Lieberman in a statistical dead heat. So in early September, this race is tied, the Lamont campaign is charged up and running well, while many people are angry at Lieberman and he's having a hard time getting anyone to work for him.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, by the middle of October, we'll be wondering why we worried about this so much. Lamont wins.

Leaning to Republicans

Jon Kyl (R-AZ): In addition to being a Republican who is a standard part of the problem in George W. Bush's rubber-stamp Congress, Kyl's approval rating has been mired in the 40s for the entire 109th Congress. But the fact that he jumped to 53 percent in the middle of August is a true sign that the campaign of likely Democratic challenger Jim Pederson -- the Arizona primary is next Tuesday -- is not making the dent in Kyl that we should see at this point in the race.

Kyl has been Bush's boy in many ways, but two things that Pederson needs to focus on like a laser are the botched Medicare prescription drug program -- surely a sore point with Arizona's elderly population -- and the fact that Kyl has voted against increasing the minimum wage three times in just the last 18 months. The Pederson campaign has been hitting Kyl on both of those very recently and it will be interesting to see if that has an impact on the polls throughout September.

And so far, the polls have not been great news for Democrats. While an Arizona State University/KAET-TV poll on August 29 showed Pederson pulling within 10 percentage points of Kyl and a Zogby poll on August 28 showed it as 48 percent for Kyl and 44 percent for Pederson, the Pollster.com average of the last five major polls has Kyl with a consistent 11-point margin. And then there's the Rasmussen poll of August 31 that has it at 52 percent Kyl and 35 Pederson. Ouch.

So Pederson needs to get busy -- and fast. Immigration will also be a huge issue this fall in Arizona and, if Pederson can convince voters that his softer approach is more practical than Kyl's hard line, while also painting Kyl as a slave to the big pharmaceutical companies, who also refuses to give families a living wage, this may well become very competitive. But, as of today, it looks like Kyl's race.

George Felix Allen (R-VA): It's got to give the folks at the Republican National Committee ulcers that George "Hakuna Macaca" Allen doesn’t have this race well in hand at this point. But his own lack of substance, a strong Democratic candidate in Jim Webb and the reality of Allen's racist bent, have all combined to make this a competitive race.

Allen's approval ratings have been in the mid-to-low 50s since the beginning of 2005 -- not horrible, but not what you want going into an election where voters may really start to see you as an intellectually-weak racist, who's a major part of the ineffective Republican machine in Washington.

Challenger Jim Webb is a tough-as-nails former Marine who received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his Vietnam service and who has already shown in this race that any attempts at challenging his patriotism will be met with a harsh response.

"Jim Webb served and fought for our flag and what it stands for, while George Felix Allen Jr. chose to cut and run," said a June press release from the Webb camp after Allen's campaign implied that Webb's stance on flag-burning was unpatriotic. "When he and his disrespectful campaign puppets attack Jim Webb they are attacking every man and woman who served. Their comments are nothing more than weak-kneed attacks by cowards."

Allen has a massive cash advantage over Webb and that's a problem. But if you take Allen's own weaknesses, strong Netroots support for Webb and the challenger's in-your-face campaign posture and combine those with some badly-needed funding from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, this could become exciting.

While a Zogby poll done on August 27 shows Webb slightly ahead of Allen 48 percent to 47 percent, we still need to view that through the prism of a five-poll average from Pollster.com of 48 percent for Allen and 42 percent for Webb. Still, that's not a horrible place for Webb to be at this point.

My heart wants so badly to predict a Webb victory but logic dictates that this is still Allen's race to lose. But how Webb does in September could change all of that. We'll certainly see some fireworks if Chickenhawk Allen continues to tell a highly-decorated combat Veteran that he advocates a policy of "retreat and surrender." But, like it or not, the edge still goes to Allen.

So, with nine true toss-up races left to consider, we've moved our running tally to 49 Republican seats and 42 for the Democrats.

Of course, there's a chance the Arizona and Virginia races will flip and, if that happens, it's a whole new ball game.

Absent that, we're left with races in the following states: Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee. On Thursday, we'll look at those nine races to see if the Democrats can win all of them to take the majority and control the Senate until the next presidential election.